Zara, lies and Fashion's big new row
What the head of the fast fashion brand said to the FT, and how it all blew up
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There’s an unholy row going on in the fashion world this week, and it's gripping stuff. It began last Thursday when the Financial Times published an interview with Marta Ortega Perez. Not a household name, but as the non executive chair of Inditex, the Spanish holding company for fashion brand Zara, she is one of, if not the most powerful people in fashion. Her father’s company, which she took over last year, produces 450m garments a year, driving sales of €32.6billion. In the last year, under Marta’s new watch, sales have risen 17%. The Ortegas are the Murdochs of the fashion world - just as powerful, possibly even richer and likely a lot less venal.
They also never talk, so the interview was a coup. Carefully managed with black and white portraits of the youthful Marta, (she is only 36), the bomb dropped about half way through the piece. “We don’t recognise ourselves in what they call ‘fast fashion’,” announced Ortega blithely to the interviewer Jo Ellison. “Because that brings to mind the amount of unsold items and poor-quality clothes focused on a very cheap price, and that cannot be further from what we do.” Some wondered if the proximity to April Fools day was not a coincidence. Or whether the Nepobaby had looked out of the window of her private jet recently.
Commendably, Ellison rang sustainability strategist and UN advisor Rachel Arthur for comment, which she shared in the article: “If you’re dropping new collections dozens of times a year, you’re a fast fashion brand whether you recognise it or not,” responded Rachel emphatically. “Fashion is built on resource extraction and exploitation, meaning it has an enormously detrimental impact on both the planet and people. The fact is, if we don’t look at volume, we can’t meet any of the sustainability targets we’ve set.”
So, is this interview with Marta, which she used to list Zara’s sustainability claims, just “further evidence the class war is over and the 1% has won,” as one FT reader put it?
Not if the BBC is to be believed. This weekend they published a landmark article which represents an entirely different point of view: “The Rise of the Minimalist Wardrobe”. Over Consumption versus The Great Cutback. The question is, who will prevail?
Over Consumption: whether you like it or not, Zara
Let’s break it down. Zara’s sustainability credentials are based mainly around their claim that they don’t overproduce. “We have a business model that is focused on customer demand [which]... helps us minimise the residual stock we have, which is tiny – less than two per cent,” claimed Marta. So those 450m garments, they are just what everyone is asking for. Which is a bit like saying, we put a bunch of cake on the table at a children’s birthday party, and you know what? They ate it all.
If you want to know where the phrase ‘Fast Fashion’ comes from, it’s Zara. It was coined by the New York Times in 1989, and was written in response to Zara boasting that it took them "15 days between a new idea and getting it into the stores". I phone Rachel, to ask her how she feels. She is incandescent, and puts the case a little more strongly:
“Truly, the elephant in the room is over consumption. None of these types of companies are willing to confront volume because it so wholeheartedly goes against the business model they have made so successful,” she says. “Any claim towards sustainability by this sort of a business with this sort of turnover and this volume of products is therefore greenwashing, if overconsumption is not also being addressed.”
Zara then goes on to claim that by the end of this year it will have reached zero waste in all its facilities. “It means nothing to minimise the waste streams,” fumes Rachel, “if there's no accountability for the sheer magnitude of throughput and the impact that has. At the end of the day, if the resources being used to make the garments continue to increase in terms of volume, which they currently are, it doesn't matter how little of it ends up as waste.”
Late last year, Zara opened their preloved shop. Efforts to introduce circularity are to be commended, but the average lifecycle of a Zara garment (and I’m guessing here) is probably a few wears, is unlikely to be taken back into store for “recycling” and much more likely to be thrown out or dumped in a textile recycling bin to be shipped off to east Africa for landfill. (If you have 12 minutes watch this incredible documentary from the Changing Markets Foundation. It shows us exactly what happens to the bags full of ‘old clothes’ we faithfully push into the charity bins). With 450m garments in circulation, what happens to them after sale is a massive problem.
What about garment workers rights? The FT reported that last year Inditex operated 5,815 stores in 213 markets. “And while the group is proud that 50% of its product is sourced from proximity countries – Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Turkey (the rest is sourced from Asia) – a report by Société Générale in 2022 estimated that less than 20 per cent of Inditex product had any contact with their manufacturing facilities.” This is another of the industry’s big problems - no visibility of supply chains means that big shiny brands have no idea who picked their cotton. The use of child labour in the cotton industry is rife, because although it might be certified, no one wants to pay over the odds for that.
Which brings us to quality. Zara says by the end of this year, 100% of its cotton and manmade cellulosic fibres (MMCFs) will be organic, recycled, BC (Better Cotton) or next-gen cotton. This is really good. But not every garment in the Zara collection is made from MMCFs or cotton – vinyl, sequins, polyester and all those other petrochemical derived horrors feature heavily. By 2040 the company aims to have reached net zero emissions across the entire value chain. How? With much derided carbon credits?
Look - Zara is brilliant. The design is just excellent (who wouldn’t want to binge on all those runway knock offs?). Everything from their website to their campaigns to Marta’s artful David Sims portraits are absolutely, aspirationally on point. Love fashion - love Zara. But as the Hot or Cool Institute pointed out in a report last November, this amount of product is absolutely unsustainable. “Consumer demand today has been built on this linear model of take, make and waste,” says Rachel. “Businesses like Zara have fed the cultural norm that buying enormous volumes of clothing and then chucking them away once we’re finished with them, is acceptable. That's the issue for real change.”
The only way Zara can reach climate targets is by cutting production. The resale site on their platform is GREAT. Their commitment to more sustainable fabrics is GREAT. But growth cannot be the purpose of the company. And nor can it be the purpose of our wardrobes either.
The Great Cutback
Which brings us to the BBC. On Saturday, they dropped an article on The Rising Trend of Less. It may not be winning, (Zara’s figures testify to that), but campaigns like the 100 Day Dress Challenge, Rule of Five and 30 Wears are all gaining traction. There’s reasons for this. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental consequences of their purchases; the nauseous psychological impacts of impulse shopping are becoming insupportable and there’s a massive cost of living crisis on, (‘cossielivs’ as it's endearingly now known on fashion resale sites).
The BBC’s piece was fascinating on how we got here: clothes used to be really expensive. In 18th century London a quarter of thefts brought to court involved textiles and clothing. "In the 17th and 18th Centuries, clothes were among the most expensive things families would own," Professor Beverly Lemire from the University of Alberta told the BBC’s Matilda Wein. "Clothes could have lives that lasted decades. They were worn until they were rags… and were made to be unmade," meaning they could be let out and in, altered, and even transformed from dresses to corsets, skirts to pantaloons. Accessories switch ups were new buttons or ribbons.
The industrial revolution changed cotton production meaning prices dropped and garments became increasingly factory-made. It was the invention of the washing machine, and petrochemical-sourced synthetic fibres that changed everything. Cheap fabrics and cheap production gave birth to businesses like Zara.
So maybe Marta is right - we are asking for it, all Zara is doing is giving us what we want. Not so long ago it felt democratic that everyone could own a piece of fashion, that we didn’t need to be “too rich or too thin” as legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once put it. But the cat is out of the bag. The intoxicating power of Zara’s maheesive marketing budget and cultural influence and courting of the very top of fashion, means it has leached into the system and there are countless copy cat business models from Shein to Boohoo pedalling the same. We are being offered a great big chocolate cake, and being asked, “Less, or more?”
The Great It’s Not Sustainable x Noon Swapping Party
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Finally there’s no newsletter next week as it’s Easter and I will be indulging myself with real chocolate cake. Have a wonderful weekend all of you, and see you the week after.